Thanks to a good – not great – but good snow year, finding water on the John Muir Trail should be easy. But, even on the biggest snow years, there are portions of the trail where water is scarce. If we get unusually warm weather early, and especially if that warm weather is accompanied by warm rain, much of the melted snowpack will have already left the high country by the time you are walking through it in August or September. It can’t hurt to know where you may have an issue.
Before I discuss the where and the how, a few words about hydration: it’s absolutely critical.
Blisters may cause you to abandon your hike, as can sprains and broken bones. Improper nutrition can make you weak, irritable, sluggish, and lethargic. Heat stroke, often the final phase of serious dehydration, can make you dead. Dehydration, along with HAPE and HACE, is nothing to fool with.
There are going to be times on the hike when you are uncomfortable – times when the best course of action is to just ignore that discomfort, the hill, the tired legs, or the weight of the backpack. Dehydration cannot be ignored. Plan ahead and make sure you not only have enough water, but that you have a little extra in reserve.
Here are the most likely candidates for dry stretches. I am assuming that you are hiking southbound.
The Merced River (in Little Yosemite Valley) to Upper Cathedral Lake; Approximately Thirteen Miles
There are three water sources along this portion of the trail that may or may not be available. The first is Sunrise Creek, about three-and-a-half miles from the Merced. It’s not unusual for Sunrise to be reduced to little more than a tiny brook in the latter part of the summer. Second is a spring I’ve used in the past. The source is about twenty yards to the right of the trail. It is often easy to find since the water tends to run across the trail. Just follow it back to the source. The last source is at Sunrise Camp, about ten miles from Little Yosemite Valley. I’ve always helped myself to the water available at the spigot (located just a few feet off the trail, near one of the buildings).
If there is no water between Little Yosemite Valley and Upper Cathedral Lake, you’re in for a long haul. Fortunately, there is a way to get current information on the water sources ahead. More on that in a moment.
Crater Meadow to Duck Creek; Approximately Seven Miles
The unknown here is Deer Creek, situated a couple miles past Crater Meadow. The five-mile stretch between Deer Creek and Duck Creek is always dry. The less reliable of these two tributaries is Deer Creek. If it’s dry you’ll need to carry enough from Crater Meadow for the entire stretch.
Mono Creek to Lake Italy Trail Junction; Approximately Eight Miles
You’ll cross Mono Creek via a bridge near the junction where the trail splits off from the JMT and heads to Lake Edison. I mention that for a reason: if you have spent the night before at Vermilion Valley Resort, you are going to start up the fifty-two switchbacks of Bear Ridge during mid-morning. A late start means it will be hotter and you will need more water. I’ve never known the spring, about half way up the switchbacks, to not be running.
Bear Creek runs next to the trail and will almost certainly have some water in it. Unfortunately, the accessibility to Bear Creek varies greatly. There will be times when you are just ten or twenty yards from water, but it will be practically unreachable. A good satellite map reconnaissance will reveal good spots to get water.
Sallie Keyes Lakes to Muir Trail Ranch; Approximately Five Miles
Senger Creek is the unknown. If it is still running (it’s a fairly robust little creek) you’ll have an additional source not long after Sallie Keyes Lakes. Water is available at Muir Trail Ranch even if you are not staying there.
Palisade Lakes to the South Fork of the Kings River; Approximately Six Miles
This stretch will take you up and over Mather Pass. If you climb the pass during the morning, and do your descent in the hotter part of the day, you will need less water.
Wallace Creek to Crabtree Meadow; Approximately Four Miles
This part of the trial is not heavily forested, but there are quite a few trees. The shade they provide should make this stretch a little less taxing. Besides, with the stamina you’ve acquired on the trail, you’ll speed through these four miles in no time.
Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal; Approximately Fifteen Miles
There are water sources between Guitar Lake and Whitney Portal, but they are of variable quality. First, there is a small, unnamed, tarn, less than a mile east of Guitar Lake. Since it’s so close to your previous night’s campground, stopping here doesn’t make much sense. There are no further water sources between this tarn and the summit of Whitney.
After you’ve reach the summit, retrace your steps to Trail Junction, cross over Trail Crest, and start to descend, there are several water sources available. Personally, I always leave Guitar Lake assuming that my next water resupply will come from Whitney Portal. That means I fill everything available (including my stomach) with water before I leave my campground. I also leave Guitar Lake very early and do much of my ascending in the cool night and morning air.
Final Remarks About Water
If you are reading this it probably means you are reading everything you can to prepare for your John Muir Trail hike. Good for you. However, there is a better source of information available to all hikers. I’m talking about timely information, delivered to you, daily, as you walk the trail. What is this source? Some sort of satellite down-link? No, it’s the hikers you pass coming the opposite direction!
Before you leave camp each day, have a plan on where you intend to refill your bladder or bottles. On days during which I anticipate long stretches between water sources, I start drinking the moment I get out of my sleeping bag, and continue as I pack and eat breakfast. My goal is to be peeing clear before I take my first step on the trail.
Then, as you see hikers, quiz them on what’s up ahead.
There will be a cost for this service, of course: the same sort of information from you. As you travel down the trail, note what is flowing and what is dry, and be ready to school folks going northbound.
Good hiking, Ray